A small nonprofit group anticipates this year will mark the culmination of a process that began in 2012 to build Tuolumne County’s first inclusive public playground for children of all abilities.

Sarah Garcia, founder and president of Big Dreams Universally Accessible Parks and Playgrounds, will present the final plans for the new playground that would replace the old one beside the Tuolumne Veterans Memorial Hall in Tuolumne to the county’s Historic Preservation Review Commission at a meeting scheduled for 4 p.m. Monday.

“We’re showing them what the park is going to look like and they’re going to provide their input on the color scheme to make sure we’re maintaining the historical integrity of that area,” Garcia said of Monday’s meeting.

The meeting will take place on the fourth floor of the County Administration Center, a 2 S. Green St. in Sonora.

Garcia’s hope is to begin construction on the playground this spring after getting a final greenlight from the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors to move forward. The board approved the concept and location for the project in 2013.

Since 2012, Garcia and her group, which consists of about eight people, have worked to raise more than $300,000 in cash and in-kind donations for the project’s construction.

The bulk of the donations, about $150,000, came in since last September after an anonymous donor to the Sonora Area Foundation gave $50,000 specifically for the project.

Garcia said the Sonora Sunrise Rotary hosted an event in 2014 that raised $27,000, which allowed the group to hire the Modesto-based architectural firm O’Dell engineering to begin working on the plans.

Blue Mountain Minerals, a mining company based in Columbia, is also donating $20,000 in materials for the construction.

The idea for the playground came to Garcia when she learned about Shane’s Inspiration, a nonprofit organization based in Southern California that has built more than 65 inclusive playgrounds throughout the world since 2000.

Garcia’s daughter, Ruby, suffered a stroke while in the womb that made certain activities more challenging early in her life. She said even though local parks met the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, they weren’t adequate for all children with a disability to play.

“When parents would ask for us to go to the park with them, I would make excuses because it was too challenging for us, and I didn’t want to keep explaining it,” Garcia said.

Garcia discussed her idea for developing an inclusive park with a friend whose child also had a disability and other parents she knew. Pretty soon, the county and other local organizations were backing the project as well.

Maureen Frank, deputy county administrator, helped Garcia find the location for the park next to the Tuolumne Veterans Memorial Hall.

The goal of the playground is to provide a place for children with all abilities to play together. For example, one of the most noticable differences that sets it apart from others is that the main play structure will include a ramp in addition to the typical ladders and stairs.

“A lot of kids who have disabilities have siblings who don’t, so our park will be for everybody,” Garcia said. “They can learn from each other and find out they aren’t that different from each other.”

Other distinctive features will include a solid surface throughout made of a mix of concrete and rubber material, as opposed to sand or wood chips that can make it difficult for children with walkers or in wheelchairs.

Ruby, now 8, has improved to the point where she would no longer need such inclusive playground equipment to participate, though she and her brother, Oliver, 6, frequently ask Garcia about the progress on the project.

“Mom’s been working on this project for a long time, getting up early and going to meetings, so they’re really excited to see this happen,” Garcia said.

Garcia met with local military veterans on Dec. 27 who had previously raised concerns behind the scenes about the playground’s location on the grounds of the hall.

Aaron Rasmussen, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4748 in Tuolumne, said the meeting helped them work out the differences of opinion they had. He plans to show support for the project at Monday’s meeting.

“She obviously has a great project,” Rasmussen said. “No one can disagree with her heart and her dream.”

Rasmussen said his concerns lie more with the county’s approval of such projects related to the hall without input from veterans groups who use it.

California state law allows cities and counties to establish, acquire and maintain such halls for use by veterans groups. The law also allows the board of supervisors or city council to provide the facilities for other purposes, as long as “such use will not unduly interfere with the reasonable use of the facilities by a veterans association, veterans service organization, or nonprofit veteran service agency.”
“Over the past 25 years, the veterans hall in Tuolumne has been more looked at by the county as a community hall,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said he and other veterans plan to draft a written policy regarding the use and oversight of the hall and present their proposal to the county sometime in the future.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.